Peshawar & the Smugglers Bazaar (memories from the past)

The ‘wild-west’ city of Peshawar in the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan has a tendency to conjure up images of lawlessness, guns, intrigue, treachery and romance. It is the ultimate in archetypal frontier towns and lies at the foot of the Khyber Pass, near the border with Afghanistan. It’s a town where Clint Eastwood’s Spaghetti Western lone ranger ‘man with no name’ would feel right at home. It’s been in the news recently as it is the battleground between the Pakistani Taliban and the Government; who have always traditionally held a tenuous grip on the fiercly independent Pasthtun population.

Peshawar is all about atmosphere. It literally wallows in it. The old city a warren of bazaars – if you walk down these endless mazes you will be led into a Dickensian painting: bearded merchants bargaining hard and stroking their fabulous beards, tea-boys to-ing and fro-ing between the morass, in the evenings kebab fumes belching from street braziers, a gaggle of beggars, lepers, stray pariah dogs knibbling on garbage heaps, filthy boggy-smelling open sewers, butcher stalls decorated with fly-blown carcasses (haggled over by greedy old men with piercing eyes) and it is all men. Not a women in sight. If any women dare brave it; she will instantly be stripped and oogled by the stares. This is what all cities used to be like in the past. This is what the past used to smell like. This is the true face and stink of humanity: not the anaesthesised antiseptic cities of the modern West. If you stray off the bazaar you stumble into comely courtyards, twinkling gardens, shady boulevards and muddy dwellings: washing on lines, pots and pans being dried in the blistering sun and children playing.

On the fringes of Peshawar lies the ‘Smugglers Bazaar’ – a mighty thorn in the Pakistani economy. It is littered with goods imported through Pakistan for Afghanistan and then smuggled back into Pakistan to avoid paying excise duty. Everything is available here from the latest electronics to tampons. Foreigners are banned from entering the far end of the bazaar (though I managed to get through!) where guns and drugs are sold openly. This is where things get dark. Opiates and Cannabis are freely available – bags of the stuff literally hang from the shop fronts and behind these in the shadows, squalid addicts, misty eyed and beady-nosed, openly smoke the opiate. The vendors are smiling: opiate prices have increased due to lower production in Afghanistan this year and the prices of AK47’s have gone through the roof with the recent tribal insurgency in Pakistan. Are they smiling or are they ‘high’ on their own produce? I can’t tell anymore. Pakistan is a mass of contradictions. A bona fide enigma. Will try and sort this jumble of inexplicability out once I leave. Tourism or voyeurisn (call it what you will) doesn’t come much darker then this.

Friday I’m off to Islamabad to catch a flight out of here. Next stop Thailand and the seedy night-life of Bangkok – perfect buzzing territory for The Fly. BeLIEve.

‘Caprice is a travellers best friend’

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